The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50
2012 Column Contest Winner
Over some eighteen months, right up until the eve of his own 50th birthday, Rob Trucks interviewed more than 200 49-year-olds. This is some of what they said.
#67: Michelangelo Signorile.
BY Rob Trucks
Michelangelo Signorile and I spoke on December 16, 2010, just three days before his 50th birthday and five days before his father’s 75th. Signorile was and remains host of The Michelangelo Signorile Show on Sirius XM Radio OutQ. He also now serves as Editor-At-Large for Huffington Post’s Gay Voices. Signorile lives with his partner in New York City.
I am, in the broadest sense, a communicator. I am right now a radio host, but I’ve pretty much worked in every medium and I’ve prided myself on being able to communicate in every medium.
I don’t generally celebrate my birthday. It’s probably a combination of things: one is that it’s close to Christmas and people have so many things to do, and I have just always found that if I have celebrated my birthday it’s a good thing to like pick a date in January and have a little party or something. But I haven’t even done that too much. I mean, I generally just feel it’s too close to Christmas. I always got used to the idea that it’s just a lot of trouble for people, and I just never liked bringing attention to myself for my birthday. I really enjoy having a party for an accomplishment, like a book party. I’ve written four books and I love having the party for my book. Or I’ll have parties with listeners. I definitely do not ever talk about my birthday with listeners on the air. I don’t want people sending me things.
I know a lot of people always talk about that they get ripped off. I think my parents, probably also because my father is close to Christmas, they kind of were always sensitive to that. They always did something. I mean, they still do. I always get a gift. I never felt ripped off for my birthday.
I’ve felt a sort of pressure to do something. If it were up to me, it’s just another birthday. But if I mention it to people they go, “Oh my god, you have to have a big party.” So I have thought about having a get together of some kind in January, or even having the get together on New Year’s Eve, and telling people it’s also my birthday or whatever. You know, maybe something to mark it. I don’t know. I feel like it’s almost for other people.
Fifty has been different. There is something different about it, and I don’t know why. For other people, I mean, turning 40 was a big deal for them. I never felt an issue in my 40s. I never felt an issue with my 30s, or with turning 30 or 40. But 50’s been a bit different.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve thought about why other people have it at different ages, and what it is people are thinking about. And I think it probably is different, depending on what issue for them is in their mind. Not even in actuality, but what issue for them do they see as their most vulnerable or most problematic. For example, I never had an issue about physical appearance and getting wrinkled or anything like that, because I’ve probably taken care of myself. Well, I have taken care of myself, but I probably have good genes and, you know, I’ve never had an issue. But certainly I know people who in their 30s are already like, “Oh my god, I’m falling apart,” or something like that. So I can understand why they had an issue around that particular issue then. I didn’t. For me the issue at 50 is more just the idea that you’re now entering into this second half, or past the second half, of your life. You don’t really include your childhood as a real part of your life where you’re actually making decisions and whatnot. I mean, I guess you could say the second half of your life, but in a way it’s past the second half of your life and you’re heading toward this place of like winding down. And for me it’s thinking about the things I have accomplished, the things I’d like to do, and how you become pegged as well by people, by the society as “Oh, 50, maybe you’re not the right person to do this.” Or, “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.”
I just was talking to a friend today about turning 50 and he hadn’t known I was turning 50. He was like, “Wow. I don’t even think of you as 50, or anywhere near 50.” And this is somebody who’s in their mid 40s, right? [laughs] And it made me realize that there’s an expectation of what 50 is supposed to be. And even if I don’t fit it, there’s still a realization to people that, “Ok, you’re 50 and you don’t fit it, but there’s something 50’s supposed to be.”
What’s interesting about being 49 and turning 50 is that – and this is different from your 40s, early 40s or even being 40—at 49 turning 50, you are looking at 60. You are saying, Wow, it’s 10 years to 60, and you really have an idea about 60. Because 50 is… I don’t know that there’s really a set-in-stone idea about what 50 is, and I think it’s changed even more in this time we’re in now. But 60 is definitely… It’s 60, you know. It’s 60. That’s the decade you retire. That’s very definite. So I have thought more about 60 in a sense. And I remember talking to a friend who said 50 wasn’t the issue for him, it was 51. Because he was one year into 60. [laughs] One year into getting to the 60th.
In radio you have an audience that is with you for your entire life. There are many radio hosts who’ve just been on the air for 40, 50, 60 years. I mean, they are there forever. You know, you’ll have an audience forever and you’re aging with them. Radio’s just that kind of a medium where it’s very intimate and people really connect with you. But at the same time, let me say, it’s also a multifaceted medium in that it depends on what aspect of it you’re in. If you’re doing music, I suppose, and you’re doing music for hip, young people, you might start feeling a little insecure if you’re somebody who’s older. But doing politics, doing gay politics, doing civil rights work, no. I feel like I’m at the peak or still heading to the peak of doing that. I mean, sometimes I think being gay might change it, might skew it up a bit in a way. I think it can go either way. On the one hand, it’s a civil rights movement and people, I think, look to people who have been leading for a long time. So I think in that sense, you know, Larry Kramer, I mean, he was heading for the peak at about 50-something or whatever. On the other hand, the gay community is always so focused on youth and youth culture that you worry, of course, about, Well, are you just going to be forgotten? So I don’t know. I guess I’m in a medium where it could be either way. I think it’s what you do with it.
I think I’ve been in a profession that allows for independence and creativity, which to me is always invigorating and always challenges you and doesn’t get you in a rut. It doesn’t sort of have you doing that conventional thing where you’re charting down your hours per day and then your number of years per decade, and when you’re retiring and all of that. Also, I am not someone who is communicating something that is very middle of the road and very mainstream, in the sense of, you know, I’m not like Regis and Kelly television in the morning talking to Middle America. Because I’m always challenging people, and obviously there’s a very particular political bent and whatever, I’m always sort of at the forefront of a new medium all the time. I’m always kind of pioneering a new medium, because that’s the next place where voices like mine can be heard. And therefore I’ve always been sort of involved in something new, something different, often something that falls apart at some point, [laughs] because it was too new and whatever, but then moving on to something else. I co-founded a magazine that came out of Act Up and the AIDS activist movement, Outweek Magazine, and then wrote books from that and was, you know, publishing as an author and then moved on to other magazines. And then I was on the Internet immediately, writing, and then I was doing a column, traveling around the world. I was doing Internet radio for a while. Then satellite comes along and I’m on satellite. So I’ve always been in a new place, a new medium. And I think that has always made my life different, younger. I mean, you’re in the young medium, you’re younger by definition in a sense.
I always feel like I could be doing so much more. I just always feel like, Oh, I should be doing this and I should be doing that, and I wish I was able to do more. I’m always invigorated by the work that I do. And I think that is what probably has made so many things easier, including the stress of aging: that I do work that I love. I mean, I couldn’t imagine doing work I didn’t like.
I think I always wanted to do what I’m doing, even if I didn’t know exactly how it would play out. I definitely was very interested in writing, very interested in communicating. I was memorizing commercials when I was a kid. I was reading everything. I was writing long compositions. You know, when we were asked to do a composition of 2 pages, I would hand in 25 page stories. So I always knew I would do that. As a teenager, as I started coming to terms with being gay and seeing the injustice around me, I even imagined communicating that message, being an activist. I even had images of giving speeches and being an activist. I think I’ve been able to carve out a place for myself where I think a lot of people might not have been able to. I tend to land on my feet, and that’s good in a tumultuous world, right?
I worry about very big things. I worry about the government. I worry about the world. I worry about, you know, the state of politics. I worry about where things are going in terms of people’s rights. In terms of my own personal thing, I mean, I think in this period right now we’re all worried about our future economic liability, especially coming to this age. I think we’re all worried about our futures in that regard. Those are kind of the things I worry about.
It’s not death that I think about, or fear, it’s the short time span between now and death. I know some people say they’re afraid of death. It’s nothing that I really think about in that regard. I just think, Oh, there’s not much time left to do X, Y and Z. And, I’d like to do that. Or, you know, Will I ever get to do this? Or Will I ever see this place? Or Will I ever do this? So it’s really more about that, not death itself.
What I really would like to do, and I feel I’ll probably never do, is to go back to school. There are things that I now wish, Gee, I wish I was paying attention more when we studied that. And, I’d love to go back and take a course in that. I mean, as a writer, again, as a communicator, you want to have a full breadth of knowledge about everything. And there are just some things I wish I could have more knowledge about.
I knew that I was gay before I knew what gay was. I knew I was different. I knew that I wasn’t quite like the other boys. I knew that I connected with the girls because I had crushes on boys. Just like they had crushes on boys, I had crushes on boys. So I knew I was different. I had no idea what that was, but I learned fairly early because I would get taunted and made fun of for hanging around with the girls, and called names and bullied and called a fag and all of that. And that’s how I knew life was unfair.
I wasn’t filled with fear because I was different, but I also fought back, and anybody who called me a name I really beat them to a pulp. So I wasn’t afraid of them, in that sense. I was afraid of another embarrassing moment, let’s put it that way, of somebody calling me a name and embarrassing me in front of people. But it wasn’t in the sense of fear for my physical life, because my father taught me how to fight and I could fight and it was doubly humiliating for them if I actually beat them up.
I have a theory that gay people experience this differently, many gay people. I don’t want to say all gay people. But there have been studies that have certainly shown that older gay people, people who are senior citizens, are often more mentally stable and established, more emotionally stable than others because they spent a lifetime preparing for being on their own. They often don’t have children. They never had children. They’re not expecting their children to take care of them, you know. I mean, there are studies that show that. And I would imagine that’s probably true earlier and throughout life as well. I think that because gay people are not sort of expected—and that may be changing as time goes on and people get more civil rights and, you know, have the same rights as everybody else—not expected to lead the same life, it not only frees you up a bit, but I think that it prepares you in a way, as you age. It prepares you more, perhaps, for aging. I also think that gay men are very much preserving their physical appearance probably a bit more. Again, this generalizes too much and I don’t want to generalize, but I think it’s less likely with a lot of gay men, kind of waking up and going, “Oh my god, what happened to me?” I mean, I think that that probably is true of a lot of people, but I think that there are differences that probably, with me, are due to being gay as well.
I feel like I’ve been lucky, very lucky, in that I haven’t had—up until this point, you know, and I hope it stays that way—any major tragedy or really kind of a road I went down careerwise or anything where I said, “Wow, that was just a terrible dark path.” I mean, there are little things you tweak here and there, but nothing major like that.
I think the biggest thing that is different from 10 years ago is just expectations of what could come ahead, what was ahead. I think at 39 you’re thinking there’s so much that could be ahead of you, and at 49 you’re thinking, Ok, this is what’s ahead. Or at 39 you have no idea what’s ahead, and at 49 you think you do.
My parents, in the last 25 years, have done an enormous amount of stuff. I mean, they probably did more in this 25 years than the previous 25 years. But, you know, there are certain things that are just about reality. I’ll talk to my father about a certain stock to buy, and I’ll say, “But you just sit on that for 15, 20 years.” And he’ll say, “I don’t have 15 or 20 years.”
You have ups and downs, and you have happy and glorious moments and then really sad moments. And it’s never all even. Which I think we’re always all striving for, and that’s never attainable. And I don’t care whether you’re 40, 50, whatever. That’s always the same.
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